14 December 2005

One Name and no other...

Memorial of St. John of the Cross: Is 45.6-8, 21-25; Luke 7.18-23
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory & The Church of the Incarnation

I am the Lord and there is no other. There is one name to call out in our distress. There is one name to call out in praise and thanksgiving. Just one name to lift up, to hold up before the world; one name to clear the way, to straighten the path, and one name to heal the sick, to bring justice to the oppressed; and one name to proclaim as the Good News of the kingdom. One. Just one. And no other.

John the Baptist sends his students to find out from Jesus if he is the “one who is to come.” What John is expecting from the Messiah is something like an apocalyptic rescue for the people of God, a fiery reformation of the nation and temple. Rotting away in prison, John is longing for the righteous justice of his Lord, an angry war against the oppression of foreign invaders and their domestic collaborators. His life has been the proclamation of the coming of the Lord and the preaching of a baptism of repentance, a baptism in water to turn away from sin, away from injustice toward the Lord. John’s has been a lone voice, a single voice crying out the name of the Lord, and now he wants to know from the lips of Jesus himself, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back to John and witness to him what they have seen. No battles, no fiery rescues, no lightning strikes from heaven, no plagues thrown at the enemy—just restoration, correction, healing, and the unwavering proclamation of the Good News of the Lord’s freely offered salvation. Jesus’ public witness is the restoration of what has been corrupted, the correction of what has gone awry, the healing of the diseased back to trust, and his own declaration of his mission as the One Anointed.

On the prophetic tongue of Isaiah, the Lord places His own testimony to Who He Is for us and to us. He is the creator of the light and the darkness, of well-being and woe. He is the designer of heaven and earth, the author of justice and our salvation. He is the Creator of all that is—everything we need, everything we are! He is God and there is no other.

This is the time, these few weeks before the feast of Christmas, to lift up to the Lord everything we have, everything we are. To hold up before Him our blindness, our sufferings, our diseases, all the evil spirits we fight; to hold before Him our doubts, our anxieties, our injustices, all those times we have turned a deaf ear to His Word. This is the time we look for the One Who Is To Come and no other—no other god, no other lord, no other power, nothing else at all to be our health and our salvation.

From the prophetic tongue of Isaiah to the heralding witness of John the Baptist, the hope, the true expectation of the coming of the Lord has been announced and the Good News told again and again. The Lord has come. The Lord is coming. Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord. And blessed is the one who takes no offense. Wait, wait, wait. And wait. Trembling at the coming of the Lord.

13 December 2005

Invincible ignorance...

St. Lucy, Virgin and Martyr: Zeph 3.1-2, 9-13; Matt 21.28-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory

What do we refuse to believe?

“I gotta go see a man about a dog.” Dr. Flynn would say this to any of us who refused to see the plain logic of his arguments in class. Most of us in his classes suffered from a terrible affliction, a disease that deludes one into believing that one is as smart as Aristotle after having passed just one philosophy classes. We all suffered from SPMS—Sophomore Philosophy Major Syndrome. Like dieting vultures, we’d circle his evidence, pick at his premises, and bicker over the scrapes of his conclusions, searching desperately for the single mistake that would vindicate our deeply suspicious yet oh-so-shallow minds. Finally, frustrated beyond reason, Dr. Flynn would bark at us: “I gotta go see a man about a dog!” Once again, we had demonstrated the most telling symptom of SPMS: invincible ignorance, an unbeatable lack of knowing, a willful stupidity.

Jesus is having a similar problem with the chief priests and elders. Obviously frustrated to his limit with their suspicion, their opposition, Jesus puts to them a question about the difference between agreeing to the Father’s will and actually doing the Father’s will. Jesus asks the priests and elders, “Which one did his father’s will?” The one who refuses to work but does so anyway or the one who agrees to work but doesn’t? They answer, “The first.” Correct! How obvious. How utterly plainly true. And so, Jesus congratulates them on their correct answer, right? Nope. He blasts them: “…tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you…” They will not believe.

The problem with the chief priests and the elders is that they have all the evidence in front of them: the Law, the Prophets, the witness of John the Baptist, Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and his miracles, the witness of hundreds of people who have followed him and still, still they refuse to believe. They refuse to suspend their disbelief long enough to allow the Spirit to work on their hearts and minds. Why? Social status, religious power, fear of public humiliation, investment in an ideology, all of the above? Probably. Invincible ignorance? Most definitely. They simply refuse to be enlightened by God’s grace, refuse to believe that they were standing in the presence of their Lord.

We’re all here this morning, so we’re obviously not completely invincibly ignorant! But what is it we’re not convinced of? What lingers to poison the well of our faith? We have the Big Issues covered: God exists. Jesus is the Messiah. Trinity. Passion-Death-Resurrection. Got all that. So, what, what is it? Are you convinced of the truth of your freely given salvation? The futility of trying to earn God’s love, His grace? Are you convinced of the truth of forgiveness, God’s mercy? The necessity of loving one another? Are you convinced of the need to humble yourself, truly practice your dependency on God for everything? The efficacy of prayer? The need for prayer? Are you convinced of the authority of the Church to define the faith? That you will live with God forever if you believe and do His will?

Tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Some believed him deeply enough to give their lives in witness to his love. St. Lucy bled for him not because his logical syllogisms were neatly ordered and argued. She bled because she believed. She didn’t wait for proof. Her belief made sense of everything. Perfect, loving sense.

Change your minds! And believe him!

11 December 2005

Rejoice! Pray! And wait...

3rd Sunday of Advent (2005): Is 61.1-2, 10-11; I Thes 5. 16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Rejoice always and pray without ceasing! On this Rejoicing Sunday: are you joyful? Do you delight in the Lord?

“I give up! Go ahead!! Put out the plastic Santas and put on the Perry Como Christmas CD! I guess we’ll be putting out the Easter bunnies and the marshmallow chicks half-way through Lent next year too!”

No doubt you, like me, are exhausted from resisting the pressure to launch into the coming feast of Christmas. You’re tired from arguing with roommates, friends, family about when to put up the tree, when to play those catchy little carols about snow and reindeer and jingly bells.

The other friars at the priory and the student workers in Campus Ministry call me the Advent Nazi b/c I resist the predictable encroachment of Christmas into our Advent season. We have four weeks to wait, four weeks to walk that thin line between the promise of salvation and His coming. We have four weeks to sharpen our sense of anticipation, our sense of hunger for the Lord before He arrives. Jumping ahead is cheating; it spoils the delight of Christmas by peaking the season too early. Arriving at the Christmas feast bloated from stuffing ourselves during Advent is not only sad but sorely lacking in gratitude!

This is why, in an earlier time in the Church when Advent was celebrated as a truly penitential season, the Third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, was a sort of release valve, a kind of moment of reprieve from Winter’s Lent when the anticipated joy of Christmas was let loose for a solemn celebration, just one day of rejoicing to better sweeten the wait for His coming. This Sunday picked out the joy of our wait, the delight in our slow progress toward salvation and holiness.

And so, on this Rejoicing Sunday, I ask you: are you joyful? Do you truly delight in the Lord?

John the Baptist is pelted with questions from the priests and Levites sent to pester him from Jerusalem. They want to know who he is, what he is, exactly who does he claim to be. They want to know what he has to say for himself so that they can report back to their superiors. He denies being a prophet. He denies being Elijah for whom the Jews still wait to return. He denies being the Christ. And says simply, “I am the voice of one crying in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” And then he tells the Pharisees that he comes before one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie.

John is one who walks before, announcing in his life and with his voice the arrival of the Lord, and trumpets the advent of Christ, heralds the coming of the world’s salvation and rejoices in the Word made flesh. He is Joy in filthy sackcloth, joy with matted hair and locust wings stuck in his teeth. He is Joy with honey-sticky whiskers and unceasing prayer on his aromatic breath. Without pride or ambition for exaltation, John steps up and walks ahead, witnessing for the Lord his arrival, washing clean of sin anyone who comes forward to submit themselves to the long wait for paradise, the lengthy road to perfection. John delights now as he did when he leapt in his mother’s womb when his mother met Christ’s mother. He delights in being the one to show the way, the one to ring out the good news, the one to see the Lord first and point to him as Savior, King. John is joy, and he delights in Christ his Savior.

Are you joyful? Do you delight in the Lord? I do not ask this lightly. All of us are here this evening because we have responded to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to worship the Lord in spirit and truth, to offer Him praise and thanksgiving, to hear His Word proclaimed and preached, and to celebrate the sacrament of our salvation in the sacrifice of the altar. Whatever push, pull, lure, divine seduction or bribe got you here, you’re here, and I want you to ask yourself: Am I joyful? Do I delight in the Lord?

I’m not asking you if you’re giddy-happy all the time. I’m not asking you if you are a happy-clappy, sugar-sweet, Christian smiley face 24/7. To be joyful is to find final satisfaction, the end of longing, the consummation of desire; it is to live as fully in the Spirit now as is possible short of heaven itself; to live as fully in Christ now as is possible before His coming again. To be joyful as a Christian is to be satiated with the love of God, stuffed to the brim with the peace that surpasses all understanding, wringing wet with the waters of baptism and downright greasy with the oils of anointing. To delight in and to enjoy Christ is to see, hear, taste, feel, smell, think, emote, live through Christ, in Christ, with Christ. To rejoice always and to pray without ceasing!

Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely—spirit, soul, and body—be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord.” God can make us perfectly holy, wholly, completely perfect and preserve us entirely, fully without blame, without guilt while we wait on the coming of the Lord. For this blessing, we need to pray in thanksgiving, in humility, we need to pray the will of God for us. We feed the Spirit, delight our souls, and know better and better what is good and what is evil.

And we need, want to show our joy, witness to our delight out there. Like John, our joy, our delight shines out, attracts, seduces, lures; our joy, our delight raises questions among the doubtful, nurtures worries among the ungodly, and frightens the self-righteous. Our joy in the Lord and our delight in our Savior draws people to God, brings them to His mercy and forgiveness, and shows them the Way to salvation, to Jesus Christ. Our joy, our delight is the word spoken in the wilderness of our world, the shout of glad tidings in the desert of our culture’s deathwish. When we bear witness to the Father’s free offer of healing, of liberty and release, of favor and vindication, we step up as ready voices, eager tongues to proclaim His coming again.

Are you joyful? Do you delight in the Lord? On this Rejoicing Sunday, we are given the quick chance to dip our fingers into the coming Christmas feast and to taste just a bit of what’s coming. Resist the temptation to move too quickly, to gallop to the feast. Rush to repentance, of course. But do not wallow in a morose preoccupation with your sin. Name it! Confess it! Be done with it. And wait and wait and wait, joyful and delighted, filled to the top with the mercy of God, with the blessings of the Spirit. Rejoice always! And pray without ceasing!